- Cat Cutillo
- Mark Elvidge, owner of Vermont Nut Free Chocolates, holds up Halloween treats at their business in Colchester
They call it fright night for its spooky fun. But for families like Liz Catalfamo's, Halloween came with fears that were all too real when her kids were younger. The New Jersey mom raised two daughters with peanut and tree nut allergies.
“It’s sort of a nightmare. We would still do the trick-or-treating, and I would watch all this candy going in their bags and I knew three-quarters of it I wasn’t going to be able to give them," said Catalfamo in a video interview. "Food allergies really take away your ability to socialize. It really has a huge impact.”
Her daughter, Lisa, now 22, agrees. “It can definitely change your confidence a little bit,” she said.
Mark Elvidge can relate. He had similar experiences with his son, Tanner, who had an allergic reaction to peanuts at 8 months old. The year was 1994.
“That was the first I’d ever heard of a peanut allergies. Tanner was the first through the Grand Isle school system with a peanut allergy,” said Elvidge.
His wife, Gail, immediately started researching safe foods that wouldn’t risk cross-contamination. The food Gail learned would present the biggest danger? Chocolate and confectionary products.
Already a great cook who enjoyed creating her own recipes, Gail started making homemade chocolates and other sweets that they could be sure wouldn’t harm Tanner. They brought her creations to parties and family gatherings and that would allow Tanner to be included in eating dessert with the group.
“Everybody would rave about the taste and flavor saying how good it was,” said Elvidge. “One morning Gail came downstairs and said, ‘we really should start a nut free chocolate company because there’s probably thousands of families in the same predicament as we are.”
That's how Vermont Nut Free Chocolates was born.The Elvidges launched the company from their Grand Isle home kitchen in January 1998, creating nut-free products on purpose and selling them online at a time before allergy-friendly companies and Internet businesses existed.
The Catalfamos heard about the company at a birthday party in New Jersey and began ordering their chocolates and baking products online.
“Vermont Nut Free Chocolates was just the biggest light in what was a really dark time for us,” said Catalfamo who soon planned a family vacation to Vermont to visit the store in person with the kids. “I was able to say to them, ‘go ahead, you can have anything you want in the store. Anything’.”
The experience was so freeing, the Catalfamos eventually bought a second home nearby.
“We’ve all heard the expression ‘kid in a candy shop.’ People with peanut and tree nut allergies can never really be a kid in a candy shop without coming to our store and being able to pick out from the candy case,” said Elvidge.
Vermont Nut Free Chocolates now offers more than 200 products online and also sells to retail stores. The company outgrew earlier commercial spaces in South Hero and the Grand Isle industrial park and now operates out of its Colchester location. It offers a wide range of products geared towards the four major chocolate seasons — Halloween; Christmas and Hanukkah; Valentine’s Day; and Easter. Its specialty products include heart-shaped truffle boxes, giant Easter bunnies, a granola bar, trail mix, "skippers" an M&M replacement, and "sun blossoms" — a sunflower butter cup akin to a Reese’s peanut butter cup.
“The diagnosis of peanut allergies has more than tripled so it doesn’t seem to be letting up and it seems to be more of a problem,” said Elvidge. He also noted that most of Vermont Nut Free's products contain dairy, many contain wheat and some contain egg, so they're not necessarily suitable for people with the other top eight food allergies.
But they're just right for customers like Laura Kohn. The North Carolina mom discovered Vermont Nut Free Chocolates just last month while searching for nut-free chocolate online. Her 3-year-old daughter, Lucy, has a peanut allergy, and she said they’re learning how to navigate food-focused festivities like Halloween.
“It’s frustrating because she should be able to enjoy eating chocolate but she couldn’t because of the risk of cross-contamination,” said Kohn, who was able to feed her daughter chocolate for the very first time just last month.
Elvidge said the best part is the customer responses they receive showing how Vermont Nut Free Chocolates helped create inclusion for kids with peanut and tree nut allergies.
“People send us pictures of their children eating chocolate out of a heart-shaped box for the first time with chocolate all over their faces and big smiles. That’s just super. It’s just such a good feeling. We actually provide that service and it’s just so rewarding,” he said.